How Bantu Education has deepened our wounds and blocked our progress – and a way out? Bishop Peter Lee

A reflection from the Bishop for Education in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

September 2012

How Bantu Education has deepened our wounds and blocked our progress – and a way out?


No-one likes being humiliated. In fact the humiliations of our childhood may be borne throughout life, and can make us dysfunctional for years if they are not healed or at least managed.

For many, the disabling of humiliation occurs at home; that is why we fight so hard against domestic abuse in its many forms – because it is inhuman, but also because it adds to the skewing of society’s wellness as a whole in later years.

In South Africa, whole generations have been humiliated because of the colour of their skins and associated issues of language, appearance and prejudiced perceptions of capacity. That apartheid inheritance is forcefully with us, and pops out repeatedly on a short fuse. We like to think we are unique in this – part of our exceptionalism – but in fact many post-colonial societies are afflicted (and skewed) by similar phenomena.

That does not ease our difficulty, however; it just challenges the self-regard and excuse-making of our exceptionalism.

Universally, kids are humiliated at school – whether by peers in the playground or by both peers and teachers in the classroom. While we either grow out of the consequences or bury them in our psyches, painful memory can be triggered which brings a glow of shame to our cheeks or tears to our eyes as we re-live moments of failure and inadequacy around our performance, our homework, or our conduct.

Such moments can even cause dropout or disengagement with the educational process if we are compared unfavourably with peers or (worse) our successful siblings.

Now consider South Africa. Up to the 1950s, while not all black children benefited from being educated, those who saw the inside of a school mostly did so (85%, in fact) at the hands of churches or Christian missions. For all the failures of that, in retrospect, the fact is both that the basic education on offer was quite well done, and that certain values were involved in the process – whether explicitly or implicitly.

One Sunday I asked a township lunch group exactly what the difference was between church and state schools in the old days. They said, ‘In the church schools, the teachers knew the children’s names’. That sums it up.

These values included the belief that all human beings were created by God and were thereby endowed with dignity, rights and potential. It was precisely this which the Bantu Education system set out to destroy; as the infamous and oft-quoted statements of politicians in that day reveal, black people must not run away with the idea that they had the same value or potential as whites. Of course they should not aspire to be doctors, lawyers, teachers or leaders; it was not ‘in them’ to do that.

So the Bantu Education system became a self-fulfilling prophecy; it systematically removed education from the people and with that, the possibility of proving that the people could in fact respond to education and rise to roles of competence and professionalism in the land.

If we asked what was the greatest act of theft in South Africa’s history, many would name the Land Acts of 1913 – and they might be right. But the Bantu Education Act runs it a close second. Trevor Huddleston called it ‘the most destructive of all the apartheid legislation’.

That is because it takes years to build an educational system and only minutes to destroy one. In fact many did their best to prevent that destruction; we still meet those heroes and heroines of the classroom who often trained at church institutions like Grace Dieu (which were also closed at the same time and for the same reason), who simply refused to serve up a product as bad as they were instructed to, and who enabled generations of young rural and township kids to grasp more understanding than the law intended them to. Those kids are the people who lead South Africa today – and those teachers are the ones who ought to be given the medals (unlike some of those who in fact receive them).

But Bantu Education lasted a long time; and as we all know, a year wasted in education creates a hole which is much harder to fill afterwards, than if it had been filled at the right moment. Which is why, by 1994, 85% of the teachers in Soweto were themselves products of Bantu Education.

And that brings us back to the issue of being humiliated, and its effect on our psyches.

The sad fact is that large proportions of our educators today are being asked to teach what they have never learnt – and they must live in daily fear of being exposed and humiliated.

Discount the urban legends about teachers who can’t pass the matric exams their learners are sitting. Discount the stories about Maths and Science teachers who neither own a protractor nor know how to use one. Allow for the fact that even children’s TV around the world shows science being studied by experimentation whereas Bantu Education taught it only from textbooks and never in laboratories – so that teachers of Science mostly have no idea how to do it, let alone teach it.

Strip off all the exaggeration and look at the stark reality: we are paying uneducated people to educate the next generation without the tools to do it – or even the comprehension of their own subjects which they require.

Then ask yourself how humiliating that is for the practitioners in the system.

Logically, the right thing is to recognise the reality and start teaching the teachers what they haven’t learnt so that they can teach with competence. Many provincial departments and other bodies (like SACE) are quietly enabling that to happen, and numbers of humble teachers – God bless them – are having the grace to accept that help.

But imagine, at the emotional level, what that costs. Adults in what has historically been one of the most respected roles in the land, one of the most honour-bestowing professions, have to acknowledge before their peers, their employers, their communities and worst of all their students,  that they actually don’t know what they are doing. And that is just about impossible for a respected member of society to admit.

And fundamentally, this is not their fault.

These educators are victims of massive theft and systematic humiliation – both in the past, in their childhood and under apartheid, and potentially in the present if they own up to the fact of the situation. The old wounds are just below the skin, waiting to be reopened.

How then, do human beings react to being humiliated? Acute cases may become dysfunctional to the point of anti-social conduct or criminality. Many more will either internalise  the pain and turn in upon themselves; or they will fight; or they will adopt strategies to cover over their inadequacies, maybe with defensive-aggressive conduct.

How well I remember being told by a schoolmaster, when I was in trouble at age 11, that I always adopted a stance of righteous indignation in the face of criticism! That is the point – we all do something like that to defend the ego from distress.

So – what would we logically expect to find in South Africa’s teaching profession after two generations of Bantu Education and its aftermath?

Logically, we would expect to find a disproportionate number of educators who are inadequately educated for the task of education to which they are called. We would expect a high degree of paralysis in the profession. And we would expect to find that crisis being met with a degree of denial, self-delusion, and defensive-aggressive attitudes both on the part of individuals and of professional groupings, such as labour unions. How could it be otherwise? And why are we surprised if it is like that?

The miracle is that it isn’t much, much worse: in fact, in defiance of our history, we have hordes of lovely and committed educators hard at work – as well as the dysfunctional ones.

But it’s funny. When you talk to educators alone, they will often agree exactly with this analysis; but when you get two of them together, you have a SADTU meeting. No-one will acknowledge the vulnerability to humiliation which pervades the educator corps, in the presence of anyone else. That is nub of the matter: intellectually we can see the problem, but emotionally we are forced to deny it.

In this sense particularly, South African education is unique. We like to look at other ‘developing countries’  – Brazil, Taiwan, Honduras, and so on – and the strategies they have used to overcome their educational problems. And we are right, for we share some things in common with them.

But in this one key way, we bear a distinctive which not one of them also carries: two generations of deprivation and humiliation called Bantu Education.

How then have we managed this disabling inheritance since 1994?

Of course we have tried to move beyond ‘blaming everything on apartheid’, as Desmond Tutu puts it. But this is one area where we should have squarely done exactly that. We should have said, ‘Folk, we would love to fix this whole mess quickly – but we simply can’t. The destruction and deliberate deprivation are simply too great and too pervasive for that.  It will take years. But we have to tackle the key steps logically and incrementally until we get there.’

Then we should have got our training of new teachers right; gently and discreetly offered retraining on a compulsory basis to every educator until they were all up to teaching the level which they are employed to teach, on pain of leaving the trade; incentivised that track, not the tracks of exiting the classroom into administration or a package; and insisted on tying remuneration to co-operation with the rebuilding process. Then we should have focussed on getting every Grade 1 child properly provided for in 1995, Grades 1 & 2 in 1996, and so on – with as much additional fixing as we could manage. That would have been slow and much criticised but I submit that we would have been very much further forward by 2012 than we now are.

Then we had Kader Asmal – someone who knew exactly how bad it was, but then incorrectly applied a northern-hemisphere solution of blaming and chasing to solve it. It worked in head office, where his presence was enough to get them scuttling around; but in the far reaches of rural Mpumalanga, it just increased the sense of threat and kicked in the defence mechanisms. Strings of petty district officials learned the technique of management by harassment from the Minister, but it was – and remains – the wrong way to motivate near-paranoid employees. It just locks them into self-defensive paralysis and the targeting of minimal performance levels. In our scenario, if you insist on parrot-style performance by educators, you ensure mediocrity and exclude any prospect of excellence.

So there is the lethal combination; under-qualification plus dread of exposure plus management by harassment plus a misplaced sense of entitlement, equals non-co-operation, resentment, and poorly performing educators producing poorly performing learners. And the rest of the world, which doesn’t operate that way, will simply pass this country by, quietly laughing at our predicament.

If this analysis is anywhere near the mark, it forces us to ask what the way forward could possibly be.

The first mistake was not to tackle it when we could have done so more easily, in 1994. We have wasted too much time and money on the wrong remedies.

Now we must name the issues and secure some kind of consensus around what they are, even if some of this is done in fora where the nakedness of the land is not too abrasively exposed.

Then we have to put in the remedies in a similarly balanced way – facing what is needed (mainly, to overcome the pandemic of under-qualification with a carrot-and-stick approach; the carrot being the offer of free up-qualifying without gobbling every educator’s precious free time and family space, and the stick being some sort of last-resort removal of the stubborn from the system). Obvious but politically explosive as this is, we simply can’t run a country like this on an ignorant teaching profession.

Somehow therefore, remuneration has to be structured to incentivise co-operation and penalise obstructionism. We have to combine a real understanding of the trauma to which our teachers have long been exposed, with a firm insistence that we have to move forward even if it means leaving the recalcitrant behind.

This will require leadership of rare quality, without bullying, with vision and clarity of method, with humanity and firmness bonded together, and without undue deference to the  pressure of daily politics. That kind of leadership is not easily found in this country at present, and it is not in the right places to be deployed for the solution of these challenges. But find it, deploy it and support it, we must.

Someone said to me recently, that the reason why the Treatment Action Campaign succeeded was that it had one, simple, clear demand: those who need anti-retrovirals ought to get them.

It is much harder to summarise the repair programme that we need in education, but maybe we should start sharpening the prongs, making them communicable, and working at civil-society consensus around them.

What about some of these for a start?

1: Educator support:

We must recognise the professional deprivation visited upon South Africa’s educators, and set about overcoming it through realistic assessments of individuals, effective and incentivised upgrading, sensitive handling of staff, and realistic steps to upliftment of the teacher corps as a whole.

2: Educator diligence:

The converse of (1) – while offering help, our society must demand professionalism – attendance, punctuality, preparation, sobriety, propriety and hard work. That should be remunerated but non-co-operation must lead to removal from the system.

3: Provision of equipment:

The textbook saga has to end. Buildings, toilets, books, lab equipment etc must all be in place at a viable level. Correspondingly, incompetence and corruption in provisioning must be ruthlessly removed.

4: Longer school day:

Given the state of South Africa’s homes, homework is more the exception than the rule. It must be done at school – at least for a number of years going forward – whether under the supervision of teachers (by negotiation) or others. Without that, most children will be deprived of their right to an education.

5: Distinctive teacher training:

Must be restored, built up and remunerated.

6: Labour union involvement:

Labour union involvement in education must be harnessed to the upliftment process, and prevented from undermining it.

7: Leadership:

The Department of Education must give excellent, intelligent, longterm, supportive, unifying leadership. We need to debate what that means.

Any other ideas?!

Peter Lee



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